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Letters

Vol. 40 No. 7 · 5 April 2018

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Hissing

Thanks to Eamon Duffy for pulling focus on seductus to point out that the pope’s sexualisation of error does not come from Jerome’s misogyny but crept in from elsewhere (Letters, 22 March). Catholic misogyny is indeed overdetermined; the barrel is now so full, there is a danger you will hit the wrong fish.

I don’t know if Jerome was more holy than nasty – or if there is a connection between the two – but he was not perfect. In his Hebrew Questions on Genesis he discussed God’s curse on Eve (the line now translated as ‘Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you’). He noted that in the Hebrew it was ‘And your turning shall be towards your husband,’ while Aquila translated it as ‘companionship’, and Symmachus as ‘desire’ or ‘passion’. Despite this weighing of conversio and appetitus Jerome went for neither, and conjured up sub potestate instead, rendering the line as ‘And you shall be under your husband’s power and he shall have dominion over thee’ (Douay-Rheims translation of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate). This wasn’t just an important statement about the place of women, it seems to be a poor translation, which has since dropped out of use.

Apologies, meanwhile, to Jeremy Gordon for my reliance on Christian commentators who relied, in their turn, on Strong’s Concordance. This lists 16 uses of arom, from the root ‘ur’, meaning ‘naked’, of which at least one (Hosea 2.3) is, as Gordon points out, adulterous and sexual, the rest not so much. The snake’s cunning is rendered by Strong as arum, from a different root, and thereby, as they say, hangs a tale. I am not sure why the snake would be described as ‘naked’ but Gordon’s gender-free interpretation of human creation is really lovely. I hope he is right.

Anne Enright
Sandycove, Co. Dublin

Anne Enright, like many others before her, identifies the fruit Eve eats as an apple. The Bible doesn’t mention apples, in fact, but describes the unnamed forbidden fruit as having no seeds. Portraying the forbidden fruit as an apple predates Milton and Renaissance art; it goes back to the translation by Jerome, which seems to pun on the dual meaning of malum (‘evil’ and ‘apple’) in Latin. The story is borrowed, dating back more than two thousand years before the Bible’s composition, and probably originated in southern Mesopotamia. A stone cylinder from about 2200 BCE depicts two seated figures, a tree and a serpent.

Basem Ra’ad
Toronto

Conspicuous Absence

Eric Foner, in his review of Anne Bailey’s The Weeping Time, notes that the experience of slavery is ‘conspicuously absent’ from public representations of history (LRB, 22 March). It depends where you look. It’s far from absent in historical fiction, and especially in works of imaginative reconstruction aimed at the young. There are many titles, but Julius Lester’s Day of Tears (2005) was actually about the same slave auction that Bailey describes, when Pierce Butler sold his ‘assets’ to pay his debts. The rain came down as the sale began, and fell throughout. Lester tells the story as far as possible through the voices of the slaves, for whom the rain is ‘God’s tears’. Part-novel, part-play, Day of Tears lent itself to group reading aloud, and was used in schools to teach the history of slavery in an empathetic way. It would be interesting to know if it is still being read in schools, or if the move to protect pupils from painful topics – which has led to the sidelining of such wonderful novels as Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer and Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry – has caught up with Lester too.

Norma Clarke
Kingston University

Eric Foner’s reference to the absence of slavery from the public representation of history in the US reminded me of a visit I made in the 1990s to the library of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. There was an excellent exhibition on the history of Louisiana agriculture. Excellent, that is, save for the complete omission of any reference to the fact that those tending, harvesting and processing the crops were slaves, or that they were the occupants of the workers’ accommodation shown on the plantation plans. I have ever since regretted that I didn’t have the courage to seek out the curator and ask for an explanation.

Dick Russell
Beenham, Berkshire

A Theory

Michael Neill’s recollection of his father playing Schubert’s Erlkönig on his old 78s reminded me of my father playing and singing this chilling song in the 1940s in Sheffield (LRB, 22 March). Never having seen anybody’s father riding a horse, I unconsciously assumed the father in the song was riding a bicycle (I had seen several doing this, though none of them carried a frantic child), and despite the absurdity of the image and the illustrative gallop of the piano accompaniment, I have never quite lost the sense of the presence of a bicycle. This has in no way lessened the impact of the music or the dramatic intensity of the words. Is this how incompatible notions such as ‘Brexit will set us free and make us rich’ or ‘The right to carry arms makes US citizens safe’ are formed and held?

John Bailey
St Albans, Hertfordshire

In Uladh

There have been a few developments since the publication of Susan McKay’s piece on Northern Ireland (LRB, 8 March). She mentions that the DUP had ‘made itself useful to the Conservatives, secretly using a loophole in the Northern Irish law on political donations to channel large sums into a mainland advertising campaign for Brexit in the run-up to the 2016 referendum’. On 5 March the Transparency of Donations & Loans (NI Political Parties) Order 2018 was approved after a vote in the House of Commons. As a result, details of donations and loans of £7500 or more will now be made public. However, the cut-off date was set at July 2017, so donations and loans made during the EU referendum campaign of 2016 will remain concealed. (We do know that these donations included £435,000 given to the DUP – and spent in support of the Leave campaign – by a group of pro-Union business people called the Constitutional Research Council.)

McKay writes that Arlene Foster wanted Northern Ireland to be ‘returned to direct rule from Westminster, and that Karen Bradley start paying out the £1 billion that Theresa May was forced to pledge last year in exchange for the DUP’s help in propping up her minority government’. On 8 March, Bradley announced that a new budget for Northern Ireland will include £410 million of that £1 billion. That will include £80 million for the relief of current pressures on health and education provision, £30 million to address issues of mental health and severe deprivation, and £100 million for the long-term transformation of the health service.

On 7 March, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster heard evidence from Simon Hamilton, a senior DUP Northern Ireland Assembly member who was involved in the party’s negotiations with Sinn Féin. He is seen as one of the DUP’s moderates and would be very likely to return to Stormont as a minister under devolution; his remarks can be taken as an ‘official’ stance. He told the committee he saw little prospect of Stormont returning this year and hinted that there may have to be changes to the Good Friday Agreement before it could happen at all. He insisted that his party was ideologically committed to devolution but that in the absence of Stormont there was an urgent need for direct-rule decisions since that would be ‘better than having no decisions taken at all’ in such areas as health and education.

James Grainger
Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire

A Woman’s Agency

Thank you to Jacqueline Rose for taking on the gnarly subject of sexual harassment (LRB, 22 February). Recently there has been a burst of truth-telling about systemic sexual harassment in New Zealand too, disrupting the mood of national self-congratulation at the country’s election of a young, progressive female prime minister who is pregnant with her first child. A top-echelon law firm has been outed for tolerating years of sexual harassment of student interns and young lawyers. It seems abuse of power is rife in some professional firms, where the partners are virtually untouchable thanks to their status and the money they bring in.

Rose makes one remark in particular that struck home with me. ‘It is scary,’ she writes, ‘though common enough historically, to witness the speed with which a progressive cause can become complicit with, or be co-opted by, a nasty political agenda … Women’s issues are only ever allowed to be the main event for the briefest possible interlude.’ When I was young and into Women’s Lib and consciousness-raising, we talked a lot about the threat of patriarchal backlash (denial, ridicule and punishment were the main weapons). There was c0-option too, and it fuelled doubt and divisiveness within the movement. Some big things were achieved, notably in legal statutes; a few glass ceilings were broken and girls’ education was improved. But conditioned behaviours and cultural norms have been a lot harder to shift, in the home and in the workplace.

I sometimes wonder if my generation of women, who were radicalised in the 1960s and 1970s, have failed younger generations. It rankles when I hear some younger women arrogantly rejecting what they take to be ‘feminism’, but more than that it makes me sad to see women today virtually back at square one, having to reinvent feminism by insisting all over again that ‘the personal is political,’ and exposing their own vulnerability in doing so. When women are the focus, that also makes them a target. Young women’s anger will make many uncomfortable, and we can anticipate a vigorous reaction from the establishment.

Belinda Meares
Motunau, New Zealand

When the Ice Melts

David Campbell writes to remind us of his view that global efforts to limit climate change by constraining carbon emissions are proving impotent in the face of China’s industrialisation (Letters, 8 March). Those who recall his piece in the LRB of 5 November 2015 will not be surprised that his answer to our failure so far to have done enough is that we should do less in future. Forget mitigation, he says. We should focus on adaptation instead.

In 2018 it should no longer be necessary to state that this a false choice. Mitigation and adaptation are no more fungible than are cause and effect. Some global temperature rise in the coming decades is now inevitable so adaptation will be needed – quite desperately in some parts of the world. But adaptation can only ever offer a partial and temporary response to the effects of climate change. Let’s imagine that the 145 million people living three feet or less above sea level could all be protected from the sea’s predicted encroachment by the end of this century. We will still need to adapt to more intense heatwaves, extreme rainfall events and hurricanes, and to the disruption to the world’s bread baskets, to the supply of water, and to the distribution of biological vectors of disease, with all the effects these things will have on human and animal populations. Are we to believe that such effects would be remotely manageable in a world where, without mitigation, warming was left to rise inexorably; not only past 2°C, but to 5, 6, even 7°C and beyond? It is a long-recognised moral hazard of overemphasising the utility of adaptation that it can deter action on tackling the root cause of climate change.

Jonathan Church
Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire

My great-uncle gave me a rifle

Eli Silberman writes of walking through Manhattan with a rifle in 1954 (LRB, 22 March). In 1959 for my 12th birthday my great-uncle gave me $50 to buy a rifle. I took the train from Long Island into Pennsylvania Station and walked across to Abercrombie & Fitch on Madison Avenue. In the gun department on the seventh floor I bought a new Remington .22 semi-automatic with a magazine capacity of 15 rounds. The salesman wrapped it up but I was so excited I unwrapped it on the train before walking home with it through the suburbs. Nobody seemed to notice.

Jack Rosenthal
Middleton, Suffolk

Brexit Blues

William Davies mentions the North, Wales and Northern Ireland but seems to have forgotten about the South-West (LRB, 8 March). Perhaps he doesn’t realise that the most recent Index of Deprivation rates Cornwall as the second poorest region in the whole of Northern Europe. According to recent figures, 17 neighbourhoods in Cornwall are among the 10 per cent most deprived in England. Our infrastructure is crumbling and central government appears to have few plans to make improvements or to drive significant business investment our way. It takes on average longer than five hours to get to London by rail from Truro. Newquay, the only airport, provides a limited service to the rest of the UK and Europe. The main industry is tourism – seasonal and weather-dependent. After Brexit, prospects for a revival of our fishing industry appear bleak. Thousands of new houses are being built, but where will people find meaningful work? I could go on.

Yvonne Bristow
St Just in Penwith, Cornwall

It isn’t clear whether it is William Davies or the German ambassador he cites who regards the UK’s wartime ‘national isolation’ as ‘vastly exaggerated’ in Churchill’s rhetoric. Either way, with Czechoslovakia swallowed, Poland conquered and divided, Holland, Denmark and Norway occupied, Italy newly declared a belligerent, Russia nominally allied with Germany, and the United States maintaining its isolationist stance, it would be hard to ‘exaggerate’ that isolation in June 1940, when France, Britain’s last remaining ally, capitulated to Germany.

Not that this has anything to do with Brexit. King George VI and Air Marshal Dowding may have heaved a sigh of relief when France sought peace terms from Germany, so sparing the sacrifice of any more fighter squadrons in a vain attempt to prop up French resistance, but the truth is that Britain was ‘better off alone’ in military terms, reasonably confident that the German air force and navy would be unable to mount an invasion.

You are entitled to bang on about Brexit: but try to keep it relevant.

David Elstein
London SW15

Dinosaurs among Us

In claiming that the dinosaurs are still with us in the form of birds, Rory Allen seems unaware of the headaches visited on cladistics whenever one of the branches of life gets reassigned, as in the case of birds (Letters, 8 March). They had already diverged from dinosaurs before the extinction of those impressive animals, and certainly didn’t evolve subsequently from the few dinosaurs that survived. Not only had they ceased to be dinosaurs, they, more awkwardly, managed to disassociate themselves from the whole class of reptiles, a grouping previously considered monophyletic. But when birds were discovered in the late 1960s to have originated from some of the smaller and nimbler therapod raptors, all that went up in the air, so to speak.

Thomas Westcott
London SE1

No New Yorker will forget

James Graham writes to correct me: Lillian Hellman’s libel suit against Mary McCarthy began with a remark made by the latter not ‘about’ the Dick Cavett television show but ‘on’ it (Letters, 22 March). Actually I wrote ‘on’: the editors introduced the mistake. I wasn’t likely to get this wrong, as I watched the programme when it was first aired, and gasped as McCarthy said that every word Hellman wrote was a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’. I remember thinking, ‘She’s going to get in a lot of trouble,’ and so it proved. McCarthy faced bankruptcy because of the suit and, wanting to help, I asked the editor of the magazine I then worked for: ‘What if all the papers got together and printed the remark? Hellman couldn’t sue everybody.’ He said no, because ‘everyone is afraid of Lillian, and nobody likes Mary.’

Rhoda Koenig
London SW2

Bizarre Fossils

It shouldn’t in any way detract from the contribution made by Simon Conway Morris to point out that he didn’t, as Steven Rose puts it, ‘uncover’ the ‘bizarre fossils’ in the Burgess Shale (LRB, 22 March). That was the work of Charles Doolittle Walcott. Conway Morris’s doctoral supervisor, Harry Whittington, ‘discovered’ the fossils later in a drawer, probably in the Smithsonian, and passed them on to his student for analysis.

Jim Provan
Aberystwyth University

Such a Solecism

In his long, detailed account of Nancy Cunard, David Ollier Weber refers to her mother as Lady Emerald Cunard (Letters, 22 February). It mystifies me that over and over again scholars, researchers and writers are able to unearth fascinating facts from obscure sources about people with titles yet never ever seem to do even the tiniest bit of research on those titles to get them right. Lord knows Debrett’s isn’t hard to consult. Lady Cunard could never be Lady Emerald unless she was born the daughter of an earl, a marquess or a duke. She is no more Lady Emerald than I am Lady Polly. If you marry a Viscount Blank, Lord Blank, Sir Thomas Blank, you take his surname: Lady Blank. So simple to look up and such a solecism, never mind atavistic.

Polly Devlin
London W4

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